/ 28 August 2023

Russia-Ukraine: SA remains between a rock and a hard place

Foreign Policy
South Africa's flip-flop position on the war has many hidden facets to it

The Russia-Ukraine war has put inordinate pressure on virtually all states, large and

small,   to varying degrees. Some fear it might ignite a third world war, with cataclysmic consequences. Or it could linger for an indeterminate ebb-and-flow period, causing profound damage.

The conundrum that is bearing down on South Africa is gargantuan and potentially catastrophic. 

The government’s first response after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was correct. It reflected a genuine expression of moral outrage befitting a country that had experienced vicious racial oppression and sworn to advance human rights.

But, suddenly, there was a turnaround from the initial public statement made by South Africa at the UN General Assembly, suggesting that certain elements within the ruling party had prevailed in internal debates. That the Russian Federation is a fundamentally different political animal from the expired Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is unappreciated among some of those faithful to the old order. Russia in its present form is essentially an oligarchic state.  

To understand the present it is prudent to know the past Critics of the South African government’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war have rightly condemned it as faux pas or as a flip-flop. Essentially, the government should have stood with the majority of nations in condemning Russia outright, the critics say (even though there was no unanimity or consensus in the West’s response to the invasion).

Furthermore, the lack of enthusiasm on the South African government’s part for participation in an active sanctions campaign is viewed as disingenuous. They should be supported by all those who are against the invasion, they instruct. But, of course, not all of the pro-sanctions proponents apply the full slate of sanctions.

In search of an explanation

What seems clear now is that there is a deep, lingering distrust of the West’s (the US in particular) intentions for a host of historical reasons. Without an understanding of that history, the recriminations will continue unabated.

For purposes of brevity, I will start with the second half of the 19th century, that is with the discovery of gold and diamonds.

Naturally, the discovery invited an assortment of prospectors and adventurers seeking to make fortunes. The mining industry started in earnest, heralding the establishment of  the Anglo American Corporation about three decades later, in 1917, with major financial underwriting from JP Morgan & Co and other UK financial entities (hence the Anglo American, tag which suggests the geopolitical moorings of the transnational company).

Other, related industries, such as manufacturing, soon emerged with strong financial support from both domestic and international (mainly Anglo American) capital. The foundations of the extraction and expropriation of resources, and the transfer of profits, were firmly established during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Broadly speaking, the historical similarities between the US and South Africa, especially in relation to racial ideology and social architecture, often lent themselves to mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationships and provide an understanding of why the likes of Henry Kissinger considered “minority white rule”  as immutable and Chester Crocker’s “constructive engagement” proposal purported to be the solution to the apartheid problem. All of these were lame attempts to protect white minority regimes in southern Africa.

It stands to reason, therefore, that adventurers and prospectors were influenced by this white supremacy ideology which has prevailed since its early formation as a pseudo-science in the latter part of the 19th century.

Yes, there were some concerns among the ruling white elite of the time because of the social disruptions caused by mining and the unfolding industrialisation process. But the pangs of conscience only applied to the poor-white class.

For example, the Transvaal Indigency Commission (1906 to 1908) noted that “most of the poor … are country men who have been forced off the land, and live in wretched shanties on the outskirts of towns — married couples, young children, grown-up young people, all living together in one little room or tent”. The poor referred to were not the black, but the white, poor.

Nearly two decades later, in 1932, the Carnegie Commission published “The Poor White Problem in South Africa”, which largely influenced the white segregationist government to implement effective poverty-eradication interventions exclusively for the white citizenry.

Black poverty, which was even more severe, was not a matter of concern.

Explaining the miniscule Russian presence

The Soviet Union first entered the South African political landscape after the establishment of the South African Communist Party in 1921. Interaction between the party and the Soviet Union was primarily political. The paltry Russian $300 million (compared to the $400 billion US investments) economic investment reported recently is a result of the iron-clad control exercised by the Anglo American alliance against any penetration of the South African market by especially their nemeses, the “socialists and communists”.

Sanctions: Duplicity, hypocrisy, contradiction, inconsistency and amnesia

During the heyday of the anti-apartheid campaign, there was strong opposition to sanctions against South Africa by most Western countries, with the exception of the Scandinavians.

Most governments in the West, financial institutions and large corporations allied with the arms manufacturing industry stood firm against imposing sanctions against South Africa. To stem the growing pro-sanctions tide, the South African government deployed a formidable anti-sanctions contingent, comprehensively covered in Hennie van Vuuren’s Apartheid, Guns and Money. The cunning ploy used by the state and its propagandists was that sanctions would hurt black South Africans most.

Some of the organisations that were at the forefront of this strategy were, for example, the liberal Institute of Race Relations and The Urban Foundation, who anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus referred to as “illiberal liberals” in one encounter at an African Studies Association conference held in the US. Domestically, several publications, including The Citizen, marketed specious anti-sanctions news.

Interestingly, in the current call for the imposition of sanctions against Russia, one hardly hears about the harm that ordinary Russians would suffer as a result of sanctions. What could be the cause of this inconsistency? Was the “pro-black” argument about the deleterious effects of sanctions in South Africa contrived, specious and therefore hypocritical?

In addition to the sordid history of co-operation between the Anglo American alliance and the apartheid regime was the fact that an “American consul with CIA connections had tipped off South African intelligence authorities about Mandela’s travel habits. That betrayal led to Mandela spending 27 years in prison and the ANC and other pro-democracy organisations being labelled “communist”.

In contemporary South Africa, the Orwellian doublespeak manifests itself not only in the ruling party’s pronouncements but in organisations that still bear the genetic material of the apartheid regime, marketing themselves as “human-rights” driven. In 2018, AfriForum, for example, sought worldwide support from far-right wing counterparts in Europe and was even hosted  at the White House by former president Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton. The latter is a self-confessed promoter of coups in countries the US did not like.

Elements from the old white liberal tradition that opposed sanctions against South Africa are now calling for sanctions against Russia. How does one explain such inconsistency and contradiction? If pressed to explain, I have no doubt that a creative response would be given. And that response would probably be informed by a liberal tradition that has always viewed itself as having exclusive rights to superior intelligence; that the subaltern can never be trusted and must always be under the tutelage of whites and to be confirmed as ready for leadership after the execution of a successful “experiment”.

The point of this reflection is that while it may be true that the flip-flop position of South Africa on the Russia-Ukraine war is driven by ideology, it is equally true that those who benefited from the old apartheid regime, including the “illiberal liberals”, are mostly driven by white supremacy ideology. The inconsistencies, contradictions, duplicity and amnesia are nothing but smoke-and-mirrors gyrations.

What is disconcerting is that they do not consider themselves as being captured by any ideology — they are the norm, they think, and the “others” are gullible idiots. In a poly-crisis world, no single country has crystal-clear, iron-clad solutions. It does not help to hold on to beliefs and traditions that are inadequate to deal with complexity. Signs of new possibilities, blurry at the moment, seem to be inviting attention. It is crucial to ditch spent orthodoxies.

Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who loathes unhygienic conditions, be they political or otherwise. He writes in his personal hygienic capacity.